The farther I read into the book, the more El Monstruo lived up to its title. It’s a great beast of a read, with parts you can’t put down and others where you forget why you were riveted a second ago. It’s uneven, to say the least, and I think that’s the biggest compliment I can pay to it. Nominally, it’s about the history of Mexico City. And it touches on all 50,000,000 years of the development of the land that would be Mexico. John Ross has a great love for the space, but an a good editor could have condensed that love into a manageable tome without the self-aggrandizement Ross gets to later in the book.
I was hooked for the first 150 pages or so. Learning about the Aztec culture, the Conquistadores and Mexico City politics during the Revolution was fascinating. The problem was this all took place within the first 200 pages with about 300 more pages to go. (Total page count: 453, with 7 more pages of Ross explaining the process of writing the book after the acknowledgments.) In his Books article this week, Brenden Kiley mentions this book collecting dust on the side of his desk, and I don’t blame him in the slightest.
Much more of Enigma's smart analysis can be found after the jump.
Ross is a leftist journalist and an old Beat from New York, and he writes about Mexico City from a personal perspective. His politics are hard left and he gives much sympathy with the student protests and militant movements of the country. It’s great to hear about these groups because so often they are maligned in the mainstream press, but repetition of his sympathies made me a little sympathetic for the people in power. Unfortunately, even with his bias toward the left, none of the groups he writes about gets nuanced views. Ross takes one or two events from a political cycle and projects motivations from the various political entities based on party line. And it gets monotonous. Even Toss acknowledges repeating himself more than once, which just makes the monotony more obvious. I wanted to finish this book in a week. I should have been able to—not to brag, but I’ve read a 500 page book in 4 days because I could not put it down. After 200 pages of El Monstruo, it stayed in my bag for about a day before I picked it up again because it got too dull.
Which is to say, I’m sad I didn’t like it more. There are great elements to this book, and it opens up a city I’ve never really thought about before despite having family there. Ross intersperses the history of a city with short personal histories of people he knows from a diner he’s frequented for 20 years. Those personal stories are great and I anticipated them as a respite from the political theorizing.
I would say this is a book to keep by the bedside or on the coffee table. Take it in chunks and you’ll have a new view of our neighbor to the south, one full of depth and heart you don’t get from the only stories we usually get from Mexico- drugs and murder. But unless you’re a great history buff (guilty) or have a great interest in socialist politics (for which I have sympathies), you’ll be bored by the end of the first chapter.
Many thanks to Enigma for the thoughtful book report. If you'd like to review a book you've picked up at Slog Happy, just write the review and send it to me; it's just that simple!